First published September 2014
The rain falls hard on a humdrum town… so opens the 1984 Smiths classic William It Was Really Nothing.
If you visited the Greater Manchester town of Rochdale today, you would be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled upon Morrissey’s inspiration for said track.
A once proud industrial town that is dubbed the birthplace of cooperation now stands wet and boarded up in the shadow of the imperious Pennines. Employment and opportunity are in scant supply. Even Ronald McDonald has taken his franchise out of town.
It seems fitting then that Rochdale AFC, the town’s professional football representative, has endured a similarly negative reputation since its formation in 1907. The club has spent longer than any other in England’s basement (so much so that the fourth tier became known as ‘The Rochdale Division’) and has a trophy cabinet as desolate as a Martian tundra.
It begs the question then: ‘What masochist would give up their Saturday afternoon to watch such a toiling outfit?’
I’ll hold my hands up here. Twenty-five of my 34 years on this earth have been tally marked into the terrace wall at Spotland.
To get into the why, we must first look at the how. Like most fathers with sons, mine wanted to get me into football at the earliest opportunity. As a staunch Man United fan, Old Trafford would have been his preferred destination. Even in 1988 though, costs were a little prohibitive. Instead I was dragged to the local club, a mile down the road, and into a shed of a terrace that held a curious mix of aromas – meat, tobacco and ripe farts. An eau de toilette for the lower league football fan.
At first it was all a bit too intimidating. Grown men growling at other grown men. Grown men they had paid to support. Angry screams of “Gerrit on’t deck!” echoed around a stadium at one tenth its capacity, as the ball sailed skyward for the 30th time that minute.
However, after a few weeks of peering over a cold metal bar and out onto the churned pitch, I found I had actually warmed to these chaps huffing and puffing in their blue shirts. I found myself looking forward to my Saturday jaunts. The occasional wins made up for the usual defeats. Like with Morrissey, I found I could identify with this team of losers. Over time, I fell in love with the place.
While my school chums were declaring themselves Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe in the playground, I found myself emulating Andy Flounders and Steve Whitehall. It was worth the thumps.
For almost two decades, my service saw scant reward. There was a pre-season friendly win against Man Utd (containing a young David Beckham) and there was an FA Cup Third Round trip to Anfield (which we lost 7-0). We flirted with the play-offs in 2002 and enjoyed a cup run the season after, but these were rare highlights.
Now, though, the Football Gods have finally smiled on little old Rochdale and the club’s long-suffering supporters. In Keith Hill they have delivered us a messiah of a manager. To the opposition, he is a lower league leviathan. Since 2007 (a small absence between 2011-2013 aside), Dale fans have been treated to silky football, ‘broken toys’ developed into talented players, and that holiest of grails – promotion. Twice.
And it feels so much better than anything Man City’s megabucks could ever buy. It feels earned. As a supporter of the underdog, it is the ultimate reward.
As Morrissey once opined, “There are brighter sides to life and I should know, because I’ve seen them… But not very often.”
Photos: Mark Wilbraham